Q: I am planning to become pregnant, and a friend says I should give away my cat, Myrtle, because she can transmit a disease that could harm my unborn child. Is this true?
A: Rest assured that you can keep Myrtle. It sounds like your friend is referring to toxoplasmosis, nicknamed "toxo," a disease caused by a one-celled protozoal parasite called Toxoplasma.
If you are among the approximately 30% of the population already exposed to Toxoplasma, you have antibodies that will protect your unborn child from the disease. Your health care provider can check your antibody levels and advise you.
If you do not have antibodies to Toxoplasma, you should take steps to prevent infection during pregnancy, since it can increase the risk of miscarriage, eye problems and brain damage in your unborn child. Fortunately, it's easy to prevent infection once you know a little about Toxoplasma.
A cat becomes infected by ingesting the organism encysted in the muscles of a rodent, bird or other animal. To prevent this, confine Myrtle indoors to keep her from eating wildlife, and feed her commercially processed cat food, not raw food.
Cats with toxo rarely show signs of infection. However, they do excrete noninfectious Toxoplasma eggs, called oocysts (OH'-oh-sists), in their feces during the first few weeks after they're infected.
More than one day is required for the oocysts to become infectious, so you should scoop Myrtle's litter boxes at least once daily. Wear a mask and disposable gloves, and wash your hands afterward. Or, better yet, have another adult scoop the litter boxes.
Oocysts excreted into sand and soil are a risk, so cover sandboxes when not in use, and wash hands after outdoor play. Wear gloves while gardening; wash hands afterward; and wash all fruits, vegetables and herbs before eating them.
Undercooked animal muscle, unpasteurized milk and cheese made from raw milk are important sources of Toxoplasma exposure. Use a food thermometer to ensure that meat, poultry, fish and shellfish are cooked thoroughly, and don't taste food until it's fully cooked. Wash cutting boards and utensils in hot, soapy water, and always wash your hands before eating.
If you take these simple precautions, you can safely live with Myrtle while you're pregnant. Best wishes to you and your new baby.
Q: Is it safe to give our dogs grapes as treats? One of our friends gives them to her dogs, but another friend says they're toxic.
A: Dogs that eat grapes, raisins or tamarind fruit can develop kidney damage severe enough to cause kidney failure and death.
Grapes at "doses" of 0.32 to 2.4 ounces per pound of the dog's body weight and raisins at 0.045 to 0.59 ounces per pound are toxic to dogs.
Initial signs of poisoning include regurgitation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, excessive drooling, lethargy, dehydration and loss of appetite. Immediate veterinary care is necessary to preserve kidney function and save the dog's life.
Veterinary toxicologists theorize that the tartaric acid and potassium bitartrate in grapes, raisins and tamarinds are responsible for the fruits' toxicity in dogs.
The concentrations of these chemicals vary with the type of grape, growing conditions and degree of ripening. That's probably the reason why grapes and raisins sometimes cause no problems but other times are deadly.
Cream of tartar, used in cooking and baking, is another term for potassium bitartrate. Not surprisingly, cream of tartar ingestion also causes symptoms and kidney damage in dogs.
While grapes, raisins, tamarinds and cream of tartar are safe for humans, they are toxic to dogs, so keep them away from your canine family members.
Lee Pickett, VMD, practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina. Contact her at